Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Forgotten battles of the Civil War: The Battle of Westport, Missouri, October 23, 1864

It is sometimes called the "Gettysburg of Missouri" and President Harry Truman (a native of Missouri) promoted it but so many of us have never heard of this battle. I talked about Sterling Price, his Missouri Expedition and the Battle of Pilot Knob in another blog. The Battle of Westport was the decisive victory in this campaign and it closed the doors of Missouri to the Confederacy.Price and his small band fought several small battles against Union forces until he realized that the cities of St. Louis and Jefferson City were too fortified to take. He moved his army to Fort Leavenworth and when the Union general commanding the area, Samuel Curtis realized this he moved the 1st Division composed mostly of volunteers regiments under the command of James Blunt and some Kansas militia to check Price's advance. The militia was organized into a 2nd division led by George Dietzler.

Curtis placed his 1st Division in a defensive posture along Brush Creek. He placed his 2nd Division of men on the right flank of the 1st. For those that don't know this Brush Creek flows through present day Kansas City. Seeing that Curtis was going to receive reinforcements Price hoped to strike before the extra troops arrived. His overall plan was a good as any general could create under the circumstances. To protect his flank and prevent Curtis' reinforcements from arriving too soon, Price placed a division under John S. Marmaduke across Byram's Ford. This would effectively block the reinforcements for the time being but would weaken Price's overall force.At dawn on October 23, 1864 Price attacked and drove the Union forces back. Curtis counter-attacked and he managed to force Price back across Brush Creek. During the next four hours the ground changed hands several times until a small brigade under Thomas Moonlight attacked the Confederate flank via a small ravine. Price ordered his men to fall back and reestablish a new defensive front. General Curtis smelled blood and ordered a attack just as his reinforcements approached Confederate general Marmadukes' division. With the Union army converging on three sides Sterling Price ordered a retreat.

The results of the Battle of Westport were obvious. The overall result was a Union victory and Prices Missouri Expedition failed. The National Parks Service reports that around 1,500 men fell on both sides during the contest. Westport was the decisive battle of Prices Missouri Expedition, and from this point on, the Rebels were in retreat. Also, it marked the last time that a Confederate army invaded a northern state. Moreover, it was the last time that the United States itself was invaded by a "foreign" army. We've been safe ever since. The largest battle ever fought west of the Mississippi and its aftermath made the Battle of Westport the "Gettysburg of the Trans-Mississippi Department".A book written by Paul Jenkins in 1906 sought recognition for the Battle of Westport. The book was a minor success and it fostered interest in the battle and a preservation effort in the Kansas City area. In 1923 the city issued ordinances recognizing the site as a historical monument. This allowed the battlefield's supporters to lobby Congress who made the area a national military park in 1924. This did not protect the battlefield from businesses disturbing the battlefield by building factories and stores in the area. By 1962, two large factories existed on the land the battlefield was seriously endangered.In 1958 the national military park received a new supporter. Former President Harry Truman helped form the Civil War Round Table of Kansas City. This group created and funded several projects on the Westport battlefield but since much of the land was in private hands their efforts have been stymied. Today, the group seeks to restore the battlefield to its 1864 condition and further information is located at http://www.battleofwestport.org/ A wonderful video entitled Saving KC's battlefield is also located at this website. If you are a Civil War buff who is interested in battlefield preservation you have to watch that video. Donations are accepted as well.

As a useless sidenote both Curtis and Price would survive the war but neither man lived for long after its conclusion. Price died in 1867 and Curtis passed on into the next world in 1866. And the rest is left to history.




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